Sand Springs Public Schools is not immune to the COVID-related supply-chain disruptions that are creating chaos across the nation’s food-service industry, district officials say.
Pandemic-related shortages of food and other industry goods aren’t news to most Americans — restaurants have been in the headlines for more than a year concerning their occasional inability to source everything from ground beef to soda straws.
But school districts all over the country are grappling with the same problems, said Sherry Pearson, the Sand Springs district’s director of child nutrition.
“What we’re looking at is a nationwide issue,” she said. “And it’s not just about food. It’s also about labor shortages. Manufacturers need workers to produce the products, package the products and transport the products.
“It has been a big trickle-down effect.”
Pearson said one of her distributors told her that in a good year, they will get 97% of what they order. But right now, they’re getting only about 70%.
Shortages and unavailable items are inconvenient for restaurants and convenience stores when they’re unable to provide desired menu items to their patrons, but the issue is far more complicated for school districts.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is the primary driver of what foods schools are allowed to serve to students, Pearson said.
“Everything must be whole-grain, low-sodium and low-fat with no trans-fat,” she said, adding that school food service employees must analyze every recipe to make sure that the food is meeting the USDA’s minimum standards.
But the requirements don’t stop there. Districts also must meet state standards, local standards, school district standards and Health Department standards.
“We have a lot to look at when feeding our kids, and we take that very seriously,” Pearson said. “Our priority is feeding our kids.
“No matter what, our kids are going to get good, nutritious meals.”
That doesn’t mean it will be easy, though.
Pearson said some manufacturers are even shutting down their “school lines” — special production processes intended to meet the rigorous nutritional demands required for food that is to be served to the nation’s 48 million-plus public school students.
Instead, she said, large manufacturers are focusing on serving restaurants and convenience stores first because that’s where the money is.
“I get it. It’s their money, their livelihood,” Pearson said. “But it’s leaving the child nutrition departments across the nation wondering what we are going to do next.”
What they’re doing is getting creative.
“We’re always thinking outside the box for what can we do that’s nutritious, that meets the requirements and that the kids will love,” Pearson said.
“I have an amazing staff across the district. My managers and I meet about every other week, and we look at these things.”
When they find out that they’re not going to get a particular item, or even a particular ingredient that’s critical to a certain recipe, they look at their options.
“We are constantly reviewing our menus and recipes,” Pearson said.
For instance, she said, there’s a certain ravioli that the students love that’s getting hard to come by. But with just a few tweaks and alterations, the students will instead get a chicken alfredo that the food folks hope they’ll love just as much.
Pearson said there haven’t been too many problems on the produce side, although students might be alarmed if they knew how scarce french fries are becoming.
“Even paper goods — that has become a real issue,” she said. “They’re not getting materials to make paper goods, like napkins.
“We’re not in that position yet here, but if others are seeing it, it’s coming down the pike.”
Any relief would likely have to come from the federal government, Pearson said, pointing to the USDA and lawmakers as the ones best-positioned to help struggling schools.
“We’re hoping for some leeway on some of those” requirements, she said, adding that no one is advocating for feeding children less-than-nutritious meals.
But maybe something could be not entirely whole grain, or perhaps the mandate to serve at least three-quarters of a cup of red-orange vegetables each week could be eased a bit.
Sand Springs Public Schools posted about the situation on its Facebook page last week, informing its community that because of the supply-chain challenges, “menu changes are highly likely during this time; however, all students will continue to be offered meals that meet requirements, nutrition standards, and student acceptability. Thank you for your patience and understanding during this time. It is greatly appreciated.”
“We’ve been operating since the start (of the pandemic) on flexibility and grace,” said Pearson, who marked her 35th anniversary with the school district in August and isn’t planning to leave anytime soon.
“One thing I really appreciate about our little town is how supportive people are of the district, how much the district loves the kids, and how understanding the parents can be.”
But there is one more thing parents could do, she added.
“We are feeding kids for free this year — free breakfast and lunch. Encourage your kids to try us if they haven’t,” she said. “The kids are why we’re here. That’s something that my staff looks forward to every day — those connections with the kids.”
In the meantime, Pearson said, “We’re going to figure out something. And we will just continue to plug at it.
“We’re not going to let that wheel fall off. We’re just going to fix it and keep reinventing it.”